Parish of St. Vincent Ferrer and St. Catherine of Siena

A Parish of the Archdiocese of New York served by the Dominican Friars

June 05, 2016

New Music Director

The Parish of St. Vincent Ferrer and St. Catherine of Siena

The Tenth Sunday of the Year

June 4, 2016


Dear Friends,

Below you will find my bulletin article for this Sunday. I hope that it will give a context to my choice for a new music director, which is also below. It became possible, and necessary, to announce this decision after the bulletin had gone to the printer.

The growth of a person thrills and upsets, all at the same time. When people pass from childhood to adolescence, their new independence excites and disturbs those who cooed over their infancy. I am proud that my parents have aged so well, but I am mad that they are old and decline to be depended upon in the ways I have taken for granted.

So it is with a group. A community of souls will not stay the same: its growth encourages and alarms at the same time. This past year has provoked us with an intimate experience of growth in the Church. In the call to make a new parish, the wind of the Holy Spirit energized and exhausted ordinary clergy and laity, refusing, as ever, to leave well enough alone. The merger has elicited our personal growth, or it has occasioned our withdrawal. Such inescapable forks in the road punctuate the history of the Church at all levels, and we have not been able to avoid this one.

This provocative growth of the Church shows up in liturgical music.  When it comes to what we sing at Mass, waves on the sea roil the waters of the pond. To understand our task in forming a new music program, it will profit us to survey the development of liturgical music in the Catholic Church in America since Vatican Council II.

It would be fair to say that at the implementation of the New Order for Mass (Novus Ordo) in 1970, the Catholic Church in America possessed only a tiny body of song in the vernacular, think of “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name.” Our only alternative at this point was to borrow. We can call this for our purposes, “the era of borrowing.” Those of a certain age can remember that “traditional” music drew upon the rich field of Protestant hymns. Think here of “We Gather Together,” “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,” or “Amazing Grace.” By contrast, there were also “folk Masses” in which the musical idiom was claimed from the folk movement of the 1950’s and 60’s. In the 80’s and 90’s this latter style morphed into “contemporary.” When Catholic composers set their hand to the familiar texts of the Mass, such as the Gloria and Sanctus, they would draw on one or the other of these styles.

In both modes of borrowing, a large body of familiar texts emerged, along with real expertise of execution. Our liturgies at St. Vincent Ferrer represent the very best use of borrowing in the traditional sense. Thanks to Mark Bani’s extraordinary improvisations on the hymns, the Mass gains a setting of sonic splendor.

The reaction to borrowing came in the 90’s with what might be called the “era of recovery.” Younger clergy and musicians longed to draw directly on the Catholic tradition. From this came a new interest in the older form of the Mass and, concurrently, in Gregorian chant. So, for example, the Gregorian entrance chant might replace the entrance hymn that is now common, or it might be used as a prelude. Pope Benedict XVI’s permission to use the 1962 form of the Mass (Extraordinary Form) gave this moment great momentum. Over the last fifteen years, I have watched chant become more and more common, along with its luxuriant development, polyphony. I would say that what James Wetzel has been able to achieve this year at St. Catherine’s marks a high point in this trend, whose beginnings I witnessed as a seminarian twenty-five years ago.

Of course one cannot draw these lines too sharply. St. Vincent’s certainly has made use of Gregorian chant and polyphony, and St. Catherine’s has employed hymns; but there is a difference in the driving force of the liturgy. The important thing to say here is that in both places the liturgy has been carried out with great reverence and with an extraordinary use of resources.  In both places that priority of divine worship has been evident.

At this point the work of the liturgy requires synthesis: we need to harmonize its elements into a coherence of experience. Points of integration would be:

  • Pairing the music of the mass to its movements so that the rite retains the flow it should have.
  • Making sure those who participate comprehend what is sung, even if it is sung in Latin.
  • Safeguarding the participation of the Faithful at Mass both by speaking, singing, and listening.
  • Presenting the Roman Rite of the Mass so that its essential shape is clear to all involved.
  • Preserving the use of hymnody, which has given us a vocabulary of worship for half a century.
  • Keeping the balance between the human voice and instrumentation in the liturgy, so that individuals are able to sing and to hear each other sing.

This approach will:

  • Revitalize our implementation of the Second Vatican Council after a half century.
  • Harmonize with the preaching mission of the Friars.
  • Deepen the Community of the Parish.

Implementing this approach will place new catechetical demands on the clergy but also impose new tasks on the Director of Music. The faithful should perceive continuity with what has gone before but also recognize that an evolution in practice has occurred. Please pray for all who were involved in the work of finding a new director, particularly the applicants. It has been a grueling process, but one filled with insights. We

  • Surveyed the parish.
  • Developed a description of the position and published it to the parish.
  • Solicited applications.
  • Met with five applicants for a first interview.
  • Met with three applicants, whom we asked to play a variety of pieces on the organ and to teach us to sing a variety of texts.

All of our finalists were organ virtuosi, but with reference to the liturgical growth we seek, described above, we also need a teacher.  The post-Conciliar Liturgy treats the active participation of the faithful as a given and ours is in increasingly a culture of non-singers.  So the parish needs to make up the difference through its own teaching work, and the Director of Music ends up with a whole new sphere of activity.

It is after much prayer, deliberation, and taking of advice that I have concluded that James Wetzel has the skills we need at this time, and so I have engaged him to be the Music Director for the new parish.  He has accepted the position with the understanding that we will be asking him to take an approach to the liturgy that differs significantly from the mode of doing things at St Catherine’s over this past parish year.

This leads to me to say with personal regret that Mark Bani will now be moving on from St. Vincent Ferrer, where his stellar skills at the organ have dazzled people for almost a a quarter century.  Mark’s integral role in the development of St. Vincent Ferrer’s demands much further reflection and that will be forthcoming. For the moment, let me conclude with an important announcement.

Mark prefers to conclude his time at St. Vincent’s next weekend, June 11 and 12. He will have a word to say at each of the sung masses, and we will have a reception for him after the Noon Mass. I hope you can come offer your thanks and support. At the parish level we are committed to doing all that we can to assist Mark in this difficult transition.


Fr. Walter